The Silent Ones Who Change A Life

Written by Sherri Matthews

Sherri is a writer with work published in print magazines, anthologies and online. As a young British mum of three, she emigrated to California and stayed for twenty years. Today she lives in England's West Country, a full-time carer within her family. Her current WIP after completing her memoir is a psychological thriller.

July 7, 2020

We hear a lot these days about the courage and sacrifice of our key workers forefront in the fight against Covid-19. It is right and proper to applaud them with hearts of gratitude.

And we do.

But what of those who work tirelessly, silently, and behind the scenes for years. A lifetime? Unpaid carers we don’t notice so much, taken for granted, thanked by few?

Some years ago, I worked as a legal secretary for a law firm in the high street of a small, Dorset town. One client, an elderly gentleman, would pop in for a chat before heading off for lunch at The British Legion. He enjoyed regaling us with stories of “The War” and his two wives, both sadly deceased.

He also lamented the absence of visits from his stepdaughter, sad that she seemed so busy. All the time.

But he raved about his “companion”. The woman, his neighbour, though busy with her own family, cooked, cleaned and shopped regularly for him. She even took him out for drives. ‘I’d like to pay her,’ he would say, ‘but she won’t hear of it.’

The dear old gentleman, upon his death, left his house to his stepdaughter but he didn’t forget his companion and left her a generous legacy. I could be cynical. Working in probate does that. Nothing swivels the neck faster than the whiff of money.

But not this time.

A sweet old man who lived a quiet, honest life enjoyed the simple joy of friendship in his last, otherwise lonely, years.

His neighbour, his friend, gave him that.

My maternal grandmother, Madeline Dorothy (“Granny” to me, “Maddie” to others), lived a carer’s life without fanfare or material reward. The daughter of a Baptist minister, Maddie was expected to stay home and look after her mother, Ethel.

But Maddie was a rebel with a cause.

She heard the call and answered: at seventeen, she ran off to London and trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital. It took Ethel twenty years to talk to her daughter again.

Maddie carried on nursing until she married and had children. By the time my mother was a teenager, both Ethel and her sister, Carrie, widowed and unmarried respectively and both of reduced means, moved in to the family home.

Many years later, my grandfather, a gifted but complicated soul, left Maddie for her best friend. Maddie lost her beautiful home and moved to a flat in Chichester with Ethel and Carrie, whereupon she looked after them both until their dying days.

I could not even contemplate how life must have been for Maddie at that time. I only saw her through my little-girl eyes as the playful, wonderful Granny I knew and adored. But even as I entered adulthood, I never heard one word of complaint or bitterness from her.

She got on with her day, chatted with everyone and kept up with current affairs. She loved people.

Through her seventies and eighties, she joined a flower club, attended church, and pedalled like the clappers through Chichester’s bustling streets on her adult-sized tricycle.

Maddie travelled to Canada to visit her brother and at eighty, she visited me and my family in California, her first and only time in America.

And she made the best lemon curd in the world.

Me with my mother, grandfather and Maddie left, (c) A J Taylor

Maddie also loved to iron. I called her “Mrs Tiggywinkle” for her love of linen and starch. Above all, she owned a trouser press.

‘Why are you ironing men’s trousers, Granny?’ I would ask on my visits, perplexed by her massive pile of ironing.

‘They’re for Frank’.

‘Who’s Frank?’

‘He lives down the road and can’t manage with such things. I offered, poor man…’

There were others. Not just Frank, but men, women, neighbours, friends. Elderly. Housebound. Alone. Maddie, by then in her 80s, was older than them all.

The only time I heard Maddie mutter annoyance was in her kitchen. It was narrow and cramped with old-fashioned cupboards hung unevenly on the wall. She used a pressure cooker for everything which blew like a steam train. What went on in that kitchen I could only guess.

Mealtime arrived but before she served ours, she would dash off with a covered plate in hand.

‘Back in a minute, dear’, she would call as she disappeared down the road with Frank’s supper. He couldn’t cook.

Frank asked for Maddie’s hand in marriage.

‘Why don’t you marry him?’ I teased, already knowing the answer.

‘Oh my dear,’ she said, her face alight with the humour that kept her young. ‘He only wants me as a nurse maid! I don’t mind cooking his meals, but to share his bed too? Never!’ Then she leaned in and smiled conspiratorially. ‘There’s only ever been one man for me.’

Maddie wanted to drive a sports car. She mused about being a farmer’s wife. She wished she could dance like Ginger Rogers. Maddie wanted to do a lot of things, but she never wavered in her call to serve others. And she loved my grandfather until the day she died at ninety-four, forgiving him everything, regretting nothing.

These are the Silent Ones who change our lives.

Thank You, Maddie. Thank you all.


I would like to thank Ann Edall-Robson’s Quiet Spirits and our resulting discussion that inspired this post.

Sherri is a writer and photographer bringing her memoir, Stranger In A White Dress, A True Story of Broken Dreams, Being Brave and Beginning Again, to publication. She is published in a collection of national magazines and anthologies. Sherri blogs at A View From My Summerhouse and contributes as a columnist to Carrot Ranch, an online literary community. In another life, Sherri lived in California for twenty years. Today she lives in England, weaving stories from yesterday, making sense of today, bringing hope for tomorrow.

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  1. Jules


    This is a beautiful post. I am sure I’ve some relatives who fit this ‘Bill’ as it were. Back in that day when our grandmothers were the rocks and foundations of the homes that sometimes the grandfathers provided for.

    One grandmother was the second wife… and when my grandfather passed her bio-daughter had to fight with the step-son for the rights of the widowed woman. Another grandmother had to deal with a philandering husband, got the divorce but also the cold shoulder from her faith because of it. Thankfully her second husband – the man I knew as my grandfather took faithful care of her when her heart began to fail.

    You remind me also of my MIL who had a marriage that lasted 54 or so years but never once thought of remarrying even though a gent in her retirement community had invited her ‘for tea’ in his apartment. MIL was the primary breadwinner after her husband came back from WWII and was only able to get work as a sub contractor.

    It is indeed a different world now with both parents stepping up to be more involved with even the infants. Sometimes both parents working full time (some just to pay the bills). While most of my own jobs while I was married were part-time to help in that way… my own hubby was supportive to take care of our children on the weekends and some evenings when I was able to work.

    Unfortunately some of our memories only make interesting reading to our own children who in our brave new world can’t fathom life without the comforts of all the electronic gadgets and instant gratification (cell phones & multiple choice grocery options) that are available.

    Here’s to those unsung heroes of the past, and even those who live in today’s world who help others without want or need of any compensation. The smile and thanks of those who they help being all they need to continue.

    Stay safe, Jules

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you so much, Jules, and for sharing some of your family history. I had to smile about your MIL’s invitations ‘to tea’ by an admirer. And I am reminded by the story of your grandmother’s cold shoulder treatment of a similar situation with Maddie when she granted my grandfather the divorce she knew he wanted. So many stories lie buried and we never get to hear them. I have a passion to bring them to light. Those who ask for nothing except, as you say, a smile and a thank you. And what better way than through the written word 🙂 You too, Jules, keep safe.

  2. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I enjoyed reading your post. These silent carers put me in mind of some others I have known. Behind every man… that saying but more; scaffolding every family, every community is a unheralded team of women who know what needs to be done and they do it. The makers of donuts*, organizers of fund raisers, knowers and fulfillers of need. A friend told me when I had a bit of cancer to imagine a team of French Canadian grandmothers tackling it like it were a messy house, sweeping it out. I knew those ladies! (I did imagine that, they did sweep, and it worked.)
    *yes, donuts, a staple of fall fundraisers, made in individual kitchens by seasoned donut makers
    Anyway, good post!

    • Sherri Matthews

      Oh D, what an inspiration! Those French Canadian grandmothers set about their work and how…amazing. And I am so glad it worked 🙂 I love the phrase, ‘scaffolding every family’. As for homemade donuts…I am drooling! Maddie used to make her Christmas puddings by hand every year, suet & rich fruit ‘plum’ puddings, wrapped in muslin cloth, boiled for hours in a double saucepan. Until she got her pressure cooker …then they steamed in double quick time 😉

  3. Jim Borden

    Three cheers for the silent ones. Beautiful essay…

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hip Hip Hooray! Thank you so much, Jim 🙂

  4. Ann Edall Robson

    Your Granny is a rebel with a cause, for sure, Sherri.

    Through her story, you have brought to life the unsung heroines that grace and impact so many of our lives, in one way or another. Some still with us, some long gone. Their legacy is ours to embrace if only we allow it to filter into our modern life.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you so much for inspiring me to write this post, Ann. Modern life seems a long way from the impact our heroines and heroes leave behind. All the more to keep their memory alive, and uphold those still with us today.

  5. denmaniacs4

    A wonderful essay, sweeping i reach and yet so privately honed. Thank you.

    • denmaniacs4

      “sweeping in reach”

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you so much, Bill.

  6. TanGental

    they are complex people, I often muse, those driven as they are to support and care for others; societies generally thrive with these sorts of personalities and while on the one hand we fear they’re being exploited, on the other, try and stop them and you reduce their self esteem and the requirement to serve – they’re miserable. There are many echoes of my mum here – she looked after both her mother and mother in law for, respectively 12 and 6 years after they both moved into the family home and I have no idea how she stayed sane. Most of the family said much the same. But if you praised her, she’d scoff and say it made her happy – maybe content is a better word – and if she hadn’t been able to, and the two old ladies weren’t getting the care my mother could lavish on them, she would have been upset and felt not a little guilty. My father, on the other hand, ground his teeth – he adored my mum so wouldn’t have stopped her – at the restrictions this imposed on their lives sand grumbled for some them time. Each year mum encouraged him to take a week and go walking with me and some of his friends while she stayed behind and looked after the old ladies. I was well aware that some of family and friends thought her saintly to do that. Was he selfish or was she? Neither and both in truth – as I say it’s complicated and relationships are complex and often subtle balancing acts. Great article Sherri! Very thought provoking.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Goodness, Geoff, I see a great deal of similarity here, including the family dynamic. Amazing that your mother sent your father and you away for a week while she continued to care for the old ladies. We often said Granny was a saint. But like your mum, she never countenanced such a thing. I have my happy memories as a girl of going to stay with my grandparents when they lived in their beautiful, rambling Victorian house in Cheshire. It is their garden that boasted the glorious summerhouse I adored playing in – now I have my virtual summerhouse 🙂 But I came to learn that much lay deep, as evidenced by my grandfather’s actions. Granny had the same mindset at your mother, to care and serve, yet she was no pushover by any means. And the very idea of not doing so would have been impossible. I agree, it is complex. Thanks so much, Geoff.

  7. robertawrites235681907

    This is such a lovely post, Sherri. I also remember my grandmother with fond memories. Not for this sort of thing but she gave me so much of her time. I was a lonely child as my mother was always busy with my three younger sisters. We didn’t have much money and lived on a farm for quite a bit of my youth. I used to visit granny and we would do lots of arty things together. I learned how to make paper dolls, dolls houses out of tomato boxes, knit, sew and embroider. We did amazing things and I wish she had lived longer.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Oh Robbie, thank you so much for sharing your wonderful memories of your grandmother and all she taught you. A priceless legacy. I was a lonely child too. My parents divorced when I was ten and I missed my dad terribly. My stays with my granny sounds so much like yours. She spoiled me with hot chocolate and biscuits at bedtime and tea in bed in the morning! We went for long walks and talked and talked. I felt so safe and light with her.

      • robertawrites235681907

        My granny used to make me shortbread. I got a piece every night before bed and she’d read me a chapter from Little house in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It sounds like we both had wonderful grannies.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Little House in the Big Woods is one of my favourite stories too, Robbie. And shortbread… My granny made something called oven cake. It was like a fruit scone, but a cake. Delicious. My mother has Granny’s recipe book with all her recipes handwritten, many going back to WWII. Including some with ideas for dried eggs…not the best! I love that we both have such great memories of our wonderful grannies! <3

  8. Charli Mills

    Sherri, what a touching essay, and I love how you and Ann have connected. There’s something rooted about honoring the silent ones who were rocks no matter what. The idea of all she didn’t get to do wasn’t going to keep her down or from having empathy for others. Yet she had boundaries, too! She ran off from familial expectations and went to nursing school, she helped Frank but drew a line. She was a woman who found her expression in life. I can see why she was so special to you!

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thank you so much, Charli. I’m glad it’s touched some hearts, from my heart to all of yours 🙂 <3 Yes, it's great to connect with Ann, I love her connection to her past and the way she's keeping it alive so beautifully and meaningfully. You know how much I love the Western heritage, even though it isn't my own, yet somehow I feel I adopted part of it! My dear Granny – what a great lady she was. She had a glint of humour in her eyes and her laugh was wonderful. Yes, she found expression. And she had undiagnosed dyslexia too. I got my left handedness from her. I'm proud of that! <3

  9. Miriam Hurdle

    This is a beautiful post, Sherri. There were so many silent heroes in our lives and lives of people we know or we don’t know. They made a difference by being genuinely interested in the lives of their loved ones and cared for them. I’m glad Maddie was in your life. 🙂

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Miriam and thank you so much, I’m so glad you enjoyed reading about my Granny 🙂 You hit the nail on the head exactly – having that genuine interest. And she did, in everyone. That’s rare a gift <3

  10. Norah

    Maddie sounds delightful, Sherrie – a family treasure, a fine-cut gem. Every family needs, and maybe has, one of those. I admire Maddie’s feisty spirit and self-determination. Even when other limits were imposed, she had the same strong spirit to carry her through. My mother was sometimes considered one of those wonders though I think it was more by acceptance of what fell her way than a choice. Perhaps no less worthy of note just the same.
    A fine read. Thank you.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Aww, thank you, Norah! She was indeed a gem of a lady and she was also feisty of spirit! It’s good to know that just because someone has a kind, serving heart doesn’t mean they are doormats. It takes a great deal of strength and courage to do what these special people do, by choice or otherwise. Your mother sounds like she had the same strong spirit and fortitude. Sometimes we have no choice, but we can choose how we will handle it. No less worthy most definitely. The Silent Ones. SMAG, Norah! <3

      • Norah

        It’s good to have these strong women in our lives, Sherri. They encourage us to develop our own strength and show that we don’t need to be trampled on or do the trampling – just be true to ourselves. That’s SMAG!

      • Sherri Matthews

        You see Norah, SMAG rules everywhere we look! True to ourselves…that’s it, in a nutshell, my friend! <3

      • Norah


  11. suespitulnik

    I would love to have known Maddie. A grand lady, serving others, loving her granddaughter and never complaining.
    As a young girl, I remember taking dinner across the street to some elderly neighbors. We had little, but my Mom said they ate so little it didn’t show on our table. My Mom was 42 when I was born and I found out years later that the mothers of other girls my age in our little town would go to my house during school hours and chat with Leota, about their kids, husbands, and things they didn’t know how to do in their own home. She was a “big sister” to them.

    • Sherri Matthews

      What a lovely, heartwarming story, Sue. Your Mom sounds wonderful. I love the image of her surrounded by all those younger moms seeing her advice and wisdom. These are the “silent ones” who bring so much to life. Thank you, Sue. Maddie was a grand lady, for sure…like your dear Mom 🙂

  12. Marsha

    I think I adore Maddie. What a sweet soul. I was blessed with grandparents and great-grandparents, all of whom stayed married for over 50 years. My great-grandmother was a character – not a complainer, though. Her husband was difficult. She had married him when she was 14, probably not her best decision. Everyone adored her. She had the best laugh, worked incredibly hard to support grandpa, made pies and cakes with me, and even shoveled coal in the basement in the winter months. When great-grandpa Birchfield passed, great-grandma’s migraine headaches stopped. We all were thrilled for her when, in less than a year she married her second cousin, a widower. They traveled the country by train and car, never driving more than 300 miles a day. As great-grandma Newkirk, she had the time of her life. She had never complained about my great-grandfather but when he died, she was 72 and finally retired to enjoyed the fruits of her labors. She and Andy were blissfully married 17 years. 🙂

    • Sherri Matthews

      What a fantastic story, Marsha! It just goes to prove that it’s never too late to live a full life! To think they travelled the country together and your great-grandma had the time of her life, no more migraines! And here’s another similarity – Maddie’s brother, my great uncle but we called him Uncle Norman, didn’t marry until his 40s. He was in love with his second cousin. Upon her divorce, they got married and also had a long, happy marriage, living in Quebec, Vancouver and ending up in Ajax, Ontario. Maddie, Norman and Nan, called themselves the Three Musketeers. He died in his sleep in his chair at 92, having just written a letter to his beloved sister, Maddie 🙂

      • Marsha

        That’s a lovely story. So sweet. I missed having cousins. My parents were both only children.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Aww…yes, and reminds me of my aunt who is an only child or parents both only children also. I keep thinking about your great-grandmother’s story. It’s inspirational!

      • Marsha

        Thanks, Sherri. I loved her and we had a lot of fun together. I envy your ability to write memoirs. That takes a special talent. It would have been fun to tell their stories, but now the memories of them have blurred too much, I think. Thanks for sharing your story. 🙂

      • Sherri Matthews

        Hi, Marsha. Huge apologies for my massively late reply. I took a blogging break end of June and only just now beginning my long catch up. Memoir isn’t easy, for sure. 7 years and counting and still I’m working on rewrites and edits…and I thought I had it nailed, but oh no, I did not! Pretty despondend with it all at times…but pressing in. Anyway, I look forward to catching up with you asap, my friend! Hope all is well with you. Thank you again so much for your lovely comment <3

      • Marsha

        I totally get rewrite depression. I pretty much gave up my Girls on Fire dream. I understood what the editor wanted me to change, but I don’t have it in me to be able to make those changes and my fire went out. A memoir is so much more important,, though. You have the drive of sharing someone’s story, their passion. I wish you the best and hope it will finally get nailed. 🙂

      • Sherri Matthews

        Oh Marsha, my heart goes out to you. I remember when you shared that whole painful experience. And it is pain. I have bled heart and soul over this memoir. How I long to finally nail it. Thank you so much, my friend 🙂 <3

      • Marsha

        I’ll be praying for you. You can get through this, Sherri.

      • Sherri Matthews

        Means a lot, that, Marsha…thank you so much <3

  13. Anne Goodwin (Annecdotist)

    Thanks for introducing us to your grandmother, Sherry. You’ve really brought her to life in this post. Enjoyed it.

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thanks so much Anne, I’m really glad you enjoyed it 🙂 <3

  14. H.R.R. Gorman

    Such a brilliant tale. Glad your grandmother was such a good soul!

    • Sherri Matthews

      Thrilled you enjoyed the read, thanks so much!

  15. Diane Box

    Sherri that was simply beautiful. I do not have words to really express how deeply it touched me. And oh your dear Granny, what a tribute and through what you wrote she lives on. I knew how special she was when I meant her all those years back but never more than today. So special just like her grandaughter. xxx

    • Sherri Matthews

      Dearest Diane, I am honoured that it touched you so deeply, especially that you met dear Granny all those years ago when she visited. Treasured memories, beyond price. So many stories still to share! Much love to you, dear friend! <3

  16. Marje @ Kyrosmagica

    What a wonderful granny you had. Amazing woman, so strong in character but so forgiving too. She knew what she wanted and who she loved. What more could you ask for. Lovely post Sherri. xxx

    • Sherri Matthews

      Hi Marje, thanks so much for your lovely comment which I missed when I signed off and am only just now catching up on. Can’t believe it’s September already, where has it gone? So glad you enjoyed the read about my dear Granny. She was a wonderful, dear lady for sure. Hope all is well with you, my friend. Look forward to catching up 🙂 <3 xxx

      • Marje @ Kyrosmagica

        I know time is flying by, September 1st! Seems unreal, like everything at the moment. I enjoyed the read very much. Yes we are all fine. Hope you are doing okay. Take care, and let’s hope we can catch up in person before too long. xx

      • Sherri Matthews

        It certainly does. Where did summer go? And what a summer…yikes. Getting there, Marje, thank you, and so glad you are all fine. You take care too….and yes, so do I, that would be wonderful 🙂 <3


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